From Yiddish writer and political activist Zigmunt Leyb, this week’s Translation Tuesday centers on Shchepliak, an old man living a bleak and lonely life in Vienna. Written nearly a century ago, Leyb’s writing nonetheless feels modern in its spareness and simplicity.
Shchepliak lives in a little room that is long and narrow. Its high, empty walls are gray, the uppermost edges a mix of dark patches of shadow and broad swaths of cobwebs. Shchepliak roams about his room, measuring. He moves his rags from one spot to another, mends a hole, sews on a patch. And when he is beset by an attack of gray yawning, which makes his small eyes fill with salty tears, he sets down the bundles, rubs his eyes, and looks around the room. He then walks slowly over to one patch of empty wall and directs his eyes toward a yellowed stain. He raises his head, his eyes boring into the yellow stain as he thinks and thinks—until the loud chime of a clock somewhere frightens him, interrupting the dull muddle of his changeless thoughts.
Shchepliak perks up his ears, wrinkles his narrow brow, opens his mouth like a pitiful child, and listens to the chime of the clock.
It’s not often that poets become household names, but acclaimed Korean poet Yoo An-Jin had help from her contribution to the immensely popular essay collection, “Dreaming of a Beautiful Friendship,” as well as from her first novel, Anemones do not Wither, adapted into a hit television series. In these poems, sensitively translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Yu Chang-Gong, we see the other side of that popularity: the sudden loneliness amid a crowd; the naked dread of age.
Just as the place where a river ends is the sea,
do we reach the sea of tears
at the age when youth’s tears run dry?
Now my language is a roaring of waves
and if once I shout
ten million words resonate
while my gestures have turned into writhing waves.
Though it unravel ten million times,
it is all a knot of dancing steps
indeed, from forty onwards is an age of tears,
an age of tears
showing nothing but waterways.
You marry a man with the same name as your father and this doesn’t amuse you. Your father isn’t there to shake his hand or to hug you, to offer you up with these gestures to the man who will take his place. At your own wedding, at least for a couple of seconds, you feel like the loneliest woman in the world. All women must feel this at their weddings, you think, in an effort to console or merely entertain yourself, or perhaps to do both things at once. Trixi is the only one there with you. That afternoon your family has reduced itself to her alone, and there’s something heartbreaking about this basic realization, but also something incomprehensibly liberating. Until recently, you thought that you would never do it, that marriage wasn’t for you. Months after meeting him, perhaps believing in the promise of a different life, one unremarkable Saturday you get married.
* * *
On the wedding night he can’t get an erection. You see him naked for the first time: his sinuous body, his long, slim dick, the scar from his peritonitis operation, and feel not a hint of excitement or conviction. Is this a typical wedding night? He touches you all over with his soft, rich kid’s hands. He licks your nipples and neck, kisses you clumsily either in desperation or impatience, perhaps fearing you or himself, but he can’t get an erection, not even when you stroke his dick. You wonder whether he might still be a virgin, whether perhaps he’s only ever been with whores, whether it isn’t women he’s into at all, whether he, like you, doesn’t understand why he got married. You wonder what your parents’ wedding night must have been like—it’s always been beyond you to imagine them young. You think about how your children won’t be able to imagine you. “You’re distracted,” your husband says. He’s a silent man, he knows how to look at himself from a distance. It’s the thing you most admire in him, perhaps the only thing you admire. Despite what you always believed, it’s something you have forgotten how to do. You feel too close to yourself, and from there everything looks blurred. “No,” you tell him, “I’m not.”
* * *